Pra Bang Man

16 Nov
Wat Phabang, Luang Prabang - Laos (20140

Wat Phabang, Luang Prabang – Laos (2014)

The origin of its name — Luang Prabang — is attributable to a small 1-meter high statue called the “Pra Bang”.  The Pra Bang is the most revered Buddha image in Laos and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century BC. The image shows the Buddha in the “double abhaya” mudra [see Laos Calling at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Ik%5D and was given as a wedding present to the Lane Xang King, Fa Ngum, by a Khmer King whose daughter King Ngum married in the mid-14th century AD. King Ngum was the first major king of what was to become the Lanna Kingdom and he reigned between 1353 to 1373 AD.  At that time, the Khmer Empire was at its height and Buddhism had been adopted as the new religion of the Khmer replacing Hinduism. King Ngum’s marriage to the Khmer princess was important not only for the purpose of cementing of royal blood lines, but ultimately it served as the ceremonial circumstance that allowed Buddhism to become the official state religion of Laos. The Pra Bang bestowed an immediate legitimacy to King Ngum that he was able to leverage as he further extended his sovereignty and helped push the boundaries of his kingdom.

Sneaky pic of the Pra Bang

Sneaky pic of the Pra Bang

The Pra Bang was kept in the royal palace at Luang Prabang through the centuries and taken out on a few important Buddhist holidays where it was paraded through the streets of the old capital. In 2013, a new temple called Wat Phabang was built solely to house the Pra Bang. The Wat Phabang is located on the grounds of the Royal Palace where the last Lao King, Sisavang Vatthana, resided starting in 1959 after the death of his father (King Sisavang Vong). As Laos became swept up in the socialist fervor and political change which blanketed most of Southeast Asia at the time, the idea of a “king” became untenable and King Vatthana was forced to abdicate and turn the country over to the Pathet Lao in the 1975. The King died a few years later and the Royal Palace was converted to a state museum.

The Royal Palace - Luang Prabang

The Royal Palace – Luang Prabang

When I went to see the Pra Bang at the Wat Phabang, I first walked into the Royal Palace and what I found most interesting was a salon area where various gifts were on display. These gift had been presented to King Vatthana by others leaders and heads of state from around the world as gestures of cultural exchange and goodwill. Most of the gifts represented some indigenous or artistic link to the country that was represented. I found it interesting that the gift from the United States was a couple of fragments of moonrock in small glass capsules along with a metal engraving containing a statement from President Nixon which said something to the effect of: “These pieces of the moon represent the continuing friendship of the U.S. with the Laotian people.”  I walked out of the Royal Palace and headed to Wat Phabang. The Wat Phabang is brand-spanking new and gleams brightly when the sun’s rays hit it. I bounded up the stairs to the opened door of the temple and found a rope blocking entry along with a security guard.  The public is not allowed inside the Wat Phabang and no photos of the Pra Bang are allowed. I craned my neck into the shadowed interior of the temple and could see the Pra Bang standing within an altar.  The familiar double abhaya mudra position of the image was clear. I also noticed that the Pra Bang had what appeared to be a crown on its head. I tried to snap a few photos surreptitiously of the Pra Bang, but it was difficult to capture a clear view of the image. Admittedly, the moment of my face to face with the Pra Bang felt a bit rushed given the fidgety security guard nearby and the other visitors awaiting their turn to stand in the doorway in order to peer at the image.

The procession of the Pra Bang - April 2014 (courtesy of Jason Kittisak)

The procession of the Pra Bang – April 2014 (courtesy of Jason Kittisak)

The next day when I was visiting Wat That Luang (the “Royal Monastery”), I met a young monk named Somchit Kittisak. He had selected “Jason” as his name in English and we struck up a conversation almost from the very moment I parked my bike in the shade of a tree and strolled into Wat That Luang’s grounds. As Jason showed me the inside of Wat That Luang and we walked around the two Thai-styles which flank the temple — one of which is a golden funerary stupa that holds the cremated remains of King Sisavong Vang — I asked him about when the Pra Bang is taken out of its temple and paraded through Luang Prabang. He told me that this ceremony took place in the spring which usually fell on the 18th of April.  On that the day, the Pra Bang is removed from its temple and placed on a carriage which is then pushed through the streets of Luang Prabang to another temple. When it arrives at the designated temple, select monks from around Luang Prabang are vested with the right to pour water on the image and perform other rites. After the ceremony is finished, the Pra Bang is taken back to Wat Phabang. I have stayed in touch with Jason and he emailed me some photos of the Pra Bang during its last procession. I was excited to see the pics and have a clearer look at the Pra Bang.

Golden funerary stupa at Wat That Luang

Golden funerary stupa at Wat That Luang

Interestingly, as Jason and I discussed the Pra Bang ceremony, he brought up the “Burning Man” festival in the United States and asked me about it.  I never in my wildest dreams would have thought about the parallels between the Pra Bang parade and the Burning Man spectacle that takes place every August in the northern Nevada desert. I first laughed when Jason brought it up. But, then I thought about it some and said that at the very first Burning Man there may have been the same kind of spiritual force or energy that was similar to the effect the Pra Bang has in Laos when it is carried through the streets accompanied by pageantry and the public comes out en masse to see it.

Stenciled door panel at Wat That Luang

Stenciled door panel at Wat That Luang

But, I wasn’t sure what Burning Man represented now since all I had heard was that with each passing year it had  become more extravagant and “VIP”-oriented and it was no longer something that interested me. So, I had tuned it out. But, it was fascinating to see that in far off Luang Prabang a young monk like Jason had heard about Burning Man and wondered how it might represent the same kind of spiritual energy that he understood.

Wat Xieng Thong

Wat Xieng Thong

Aside from the Pra Bang, the most important site in Luang Prabang is Wat Xieng Thong (Temple of the Golden City). This temple was built by King Setthathirath in 1560 and there are many small chapels and other buildings — including a funerary temple and a temple that houses a golden carriage that was once used to carry the Lao Kings — found on its grounds. Everything about Wat Xieng Thong — its broad wooden flanks, bright green naga-style roof points, pillars, glass mosaics, red, gold & black coloring, and interior hall (or sim) — are wondrous.  But, perhaps, the most beautiful aspect of Wat Xieng Thong are the well-preserved Laotian stencil designs that are found all along its pillars, panels, exteriors, and interiors.

Stencils and design of Wat Xieng Thong

Stencils and design of Wat Xieng Thong

This stencil design process — called “mak mak” in Lao shorthand — is unique to Laotian arts and not something I’ve seen elsewhere in Buddhist religious imagery. There are a few shops in Luang Prabang which offer classes to foreigners who want to learn the Lao stencil process.  The stencilwork around Wat Xieng is over 400 years old — some patterns are infinitely intricate while others are straight representations of Buddhist iconography.

Main altar inside Wat Xieng Thong

Main altar inside Wat Xieng Thong

Inside the main hall of Wat Xieng Thong is a seated Buddha flanked by 4 standing Buddhas with 6 smaller seated Buddhas placed in front of it. There are red circular wooden pillars which frame the central Buddha. Each pillar is detailed with intricate gold stencil designs, patterns, and images of the Buddha. One cannot walk behind the main seated Buddha because it sits up against the far wall of the temple. There is some space to the 2 sides of the altar area where one can walk through in order to see the Buddha from a side view. Off to the left-hand side of the Buddha, there is a replica of the Pra Bang that stands within its own altar.

Mak Mak

Exterior stencilwork – Wat Xieng Thong

The back of Wat Xieng Thong has a lush mosaic piece referred to as “Tree of Life” which was created in 1964 — as part of commemorations in Luang Prabang of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s attainment of Enlightenment.

Tree of Life mosaic - Wat Xieng Thong

Tree of Life mosaic – Wat Xieng Thong

The “Tree of Life” mosaic is seamless in the way that it integrates with the centuries old stencil designs which predated it. The mosaic elements of the Tree are so close in their look and feel to the stencil design elements of Wat Xieng Thong it is as if the 2 had been crafted by the same artisans at the same time. There are other glass mosaics found on the smaller chapels which sit on the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong. These mosaics depict scenes from the life of the Buddha, elephants, animals, and scenes of everyday life during Luang Prabang’s heyday as capital of the country. One of the chapels surrounding Wat Xieng Thong is called the “Red Chapel” or “Sanctuary of the Reclining Buddha”. Inside this chapel is a bronze Buddha statue in the reclining pose the Buddha assumed before his death. Only 1 or 2 people can enter this chapel at a time because it is very small and there is little standing room inside.

The "Red Chapel" / "Sanctuary of the Recliningg Buddha" on the left

The “Red Chapel” / “Sanctuary of the Reclining Buddha” on the left

Everyone must remove their shoes before entering and once inside the chapel it is better to sit down and absorb the windowless interior which is bright red and filled with hundreds of small gold Buddha statues. At the back of the temple is where the reclining Buddha image lies. Its central position in such a cramped space effectively commands one’s attention. There is no escaping the flowing beauty and almost haughty vibe of this image. The Buddha appears languid and bored through his facial expression and the manner in which his hand props up his head. The image also has an obsidian-like dark coloring and smoothness that enhances this “ice prince” effect.

The reclining Buddha in the Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

The reclining Buddha in the Red Chapel at Wat Xieng Thong

There is an inscription on the statue’s base which states it was created under the instruction of King Setthatirath in what would have been 1569 AD. This image was at one point whisked away by the French who had on it display in Paris in the 1930s and then it was transferred to Ha Phreow in Vientiane for some time before being returned to Luang Prabang. The chapel of the reclining Buddha has red and gold coloring and mosaic work on its outside, and it stands out from the other chapels that dot the grounds of Wat Xieng Thong.

"Do Sa Fan" roof centerpiece - Wat Xieng Thong

“Dok So Fa” roof centerpiece – Wat Xieng Thong

When viewed from afar, the 7-tiered roof of Wat Xieng Thong is easy to see. The first tier is slung so low that it appears at first glance to nearly touch the ground. As your eyes follow each tier up above ibe another until you get to the final tier a final artistic flourish awaits. Located right in the center of Wat Xieng Thong’s last roof beam is the “dok so fa” — which can be translated from Lao to English as “jutting outward to the sky”. This decorative piece is meant to represent the Buddhist universe. At Wat Xieng Thong, there are multiple individual spires that cascade upward from the left and right side up to a center spire that stands above all the rest. This central spire represents the sacred mountain of Mt. Meru and the other spires below it show the rest of the universe as they come into and go out of existence through infinity.

Dok Sa Fa of Wat Maha That

Dok So Fa of Wat Maha That

I saw another interesting dok so fa at Wat Si Mahatat or Wat Maha That (the “Monastery of the Stupa”) which is located to the east of Luang Prabang. Wat Maha That was founded by King Setthathirath in 1548 and its dok so fa consists of 15 spires. Each spire is in the shape of a small pagoda similar in style to that of Wat Xieng Thong. This kind of ornamentation in the central roof beams of Lao temples is radically different than the simple roof ornamentation found in Thai temples [see photo of the dok so fa of Wat Si Saket in Vientiane in Laos Calling – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Ik]. When I had met Jason at Wat That Luang, I also asked him about the meaning of the dok so fa. When I pointed to the dok so fa sitting on top of Wat That Luang and asked him about Mt. Meru, he explained that the representation of the Buddhist universe was just one layer of the dok so fa and that it had a dual meaning. He explained that the moving upwards from each lower spire to the one above it and then ultimately reaching the central and highest spire was also meant to remind the Buddhist practitioner of the path towards attaining Enlightenment. At its core, the Buddha’s teaching to his followers was that the cessation of suffering could occur through maintaining a “Middle Way” and actively using 8 principles in their spiritual practice — one had to invoke the right understanding, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness and concentration. In looking up at the dok so fa at Wat That Luang and counting each spire — whether from the left or right side – each set of spires led upwards to the central spire in 8 steps. The dok so fa was then a reminder to Jason and his fellow monks to follow the principles of spiritual practice that the Buddha taught in order to attain the ultimate goal — Enlightenment. It was incredible to see the convergence between art and spiritual practice through such an ornamentation.  I had only Jason to thank for providing me with that insight.

Post-script: Some months later, Jason sent me a video which provides a snapshot into the monastic life of young monks studying at Pasaviet Temple in Luang Prabang. Please take a look — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x8RvVORSvEY&feature=share.  Jason himself appears at the beginning and strikes the call to prayer bell. The chanting is rich and flows out in waves of purity…

Massage Road (Lao Redux)

19 Oct
Vieng Vang, Laos (2014)

Vang Vieng, Laos (2014)

I woke up on a chilly late December morning in Vientiane. I was headed to Luang Prabang and had booked a spot on a bus that I was told would do the 390km (240 miles) journey in about 7 hours. That was cool with me. I would get to see the Laotian countryside and have some time to nap along the way. I was picked up outside of my hotel by a tuk tuk-like vehicle with a flatbed carriage. After the driver crossed my name off his list, I hopped on. I was the first person, so I had the carriage all to myself.  The driver spent about 30 minutes careening through the narrow streets of Vientiane in order to pick up 9 more people from other hotels and guesthouses. The sun was starting to rise, and since we were sitting in an open-air carriage, everyone was shivering and trying to bundle up. So, there wasn’t much conversation going on. As we neared the bus station, our driver suddenly pulled into a gas station and we were told to get off. Needless to say, we were confused and a South African amongst us asked the driver what was happening. The driver pointed to a small minibus that was parked in the gas station and said that was the “bus” to Luang Prabang. Everyone one of us was expecting a standard-sized bus and had seen photos of this when buying the tickets. Now, here we were at the crack of dawn — freezing — and being told our ride was half of what we were expecting. I could only laugh to myself. “Here we go again,” I thought as my mind flashed back to my experience in Cambodia nearly 8 years earlier [See post “Massage Road” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-HF%5D. But, I was strangely composed and nonplussed by the situation. I was going to roll with it and not get frustrated by what would surely be another aching and arduous trip. Not everyone shared my mindset though. The South African chap angrily demanded that his bags be returned to him and he quickly hailed a taxi and went directly to the bus station to find his promised ride. I looked around and counted 16 people: 2 Aussies, 2 Brits, 3 Poles, 8 Russians, and me — the token American. We each slowly piled into the minibus. Since I was one of the last ones on, I got the middle seat in the back row and that turned out to be the worst spot because I had nothing to hold or brace myself on for the entire journey.

Welcome Sign - Vang Vieng

Welcome Sign – Vang Vieng

As the minibus pulled out of the gas station and onto the one road that led north out of Vientiane, things initially began smoothly because the road was paved and the land was flat. But, after about 45 minutes or so, the paved road gave way to crumbling gravel and there were holes and chewed off pavement. The minibus popped and lurched along. On one of these pops, the young girl next to me vomited in her hands. I had to get her mother’s attention who was sitting a few rows ahead of me. Next thing I knew, I was handed some kind of barf bag to give to the girl along with handwipes. Her father got the driver’s attention and the minibus stopped. The young girl slowly waddled off and continued to throw-up outside while her parents consoled her and cleaned her up. When she got back on, the driver seemed to adjust his driving so that it was a bit smoother and we did not stop again until we reached Vang Vieng — the adventure capital of Laos with whitewater rafting, rock climbing, and lots of partying by tourists. At a guesthouse-cum-restaurant stop there, everyone piled off the minibus, stretched their legs, and had some lunch. I wandered around the streets of Vang Vieng and immediately tuned into the hippy-esque vibe of the place. There were hookah bars and places branding themselves as offering “natural” and “organic” foods. Hammocks were slung off the rafters of porches and there were rows and rows of adventure tour vendors.

Pensive Enchantment - Luang Prabang, Laos

Pensive enchantment – Luang Prabang, Laos

On my way back to the minibus, I bumped into a man who I recognized was part of my traveling group. We started chatting and he told me his name was Matthieu and that he was from Montreal. He had been traveling solo through Thailand and Laos for the last 3 months. He was married, but his wife had chosen to opt-out of his trip. He didn’t seem to mind. He appeared to be in his early 60s, but his eyes had a childlike quality and allure to them. I’ve seen that look before in others who come to Asia on extended journeys. It’s a look that smacks of being carefree, yet it is tinged with some kind of reclamation. Like getting back or returning to something that has been forgotten or lost in that person.  I would bump into Matthieu twice — both completely random — in Luang Prabang over the next few days. The first time he and I passed each other while walking our bicycles through the night market in the old town. We were so excited about what we each had seen that day that we talked over each other and I don’t remember at all what he said — except he had bought an exquisite Laotian silk scarf that was tied smartly around his neck and I knew I had to get one too! Our second meeting was at a French cafe located in the far end of the main road. He was having a cigarette and sipping an espresso at a table outside. I came across this cafe out of an instinct to find a good source of caffeine and as soon as I pedaled up to it — there was Matthieu waving at me. It was as if he had been waiting for me to arrive. We ended up having the kind of unabashed and honest conversation that only 2 strangers with no agendas can have with one another. There were no preconceived judgments or fears of any reprisals. Just exhilarating talk accompanied by savory cafe au lait and pan du chocolate. Then, we both got on our bikes and headed in opposite directions. His last words to me: “Enjoy life”.

Novice monks doing chores at monastery - Luang Prabang

Novice monks doing chores in their monastery – Luang Prabang

From Vang Vieng onwards, the road climbed and climbed with turn after turn through mountainous passes. Huge stone karst formations shot up around us. The views were amazing but the drive was so bumpy and shaky that it was impossible to take photos. We did stop a few times along the way, but all I wanted to do when stepping off the minibus was to try to regain my balance. Because I had no seat or anything directly in front of me to hold onto, I had to clench my entire body in order to lower my center of gravity and prevent myself from falling off my seat or hitting my head on the roof. The road had 2-way traffic, but was only wide enough for one car to pass at a time. I remember Matthieu making a joke to the effect of: “the French and Lao engineers must not have liked building tunnels because there were none.” He definitely was right about the lack of tunnels during the drive. The road kept snaking the long way around each mountain pass. So, while the distance between Vientiane to Luang Prabang when measured in a straight line was not too far, the actual drive time had no relation to that distance.  At one point, our driver stopped the car, and we didn’t know what was going on. It turned out he was ogling a small house built into the hillside which was in the process of collapsing and falling down. There was little patience among us for this kind of rubbernecking, so we barked at the driver to get on with driving.  On another turn, we came to a full stop and saw an overturned tanker on the road.  As our mini-bus had to inch around this steel carcass, we saw people standing around the tanker smoking as they waited for help. I guess the risk of the tanker blowing up due to their cigarettes wasn’t an issue.

Evening prayer at temple - Luang Prabang

Evening prayer at temple – Luang Prabang

Finally, after 11 hours, we pulled into Luang Prabang — and even then there was some dodginess. We had been led to believe that the ticket we had purchased would cover us getting dropped out off at our guesthouse. So, we expected that a smaller vehicle would be waiting for us at the bus stop.  Not the case. Instead, the minibus pulled into an area near the old city of Luang Prabang and we were told that we had to get our own ride from there to our guesthouse.  After nearly half a day of being jostled about in a tin can, I wasn’t in the mood for another long ride. I had been studying a map of the old town of Luang Prabang and because it was bisected by 2 rivers, I felt I had an easy sense of orientation. I knew my guesthouse would be off to the right-side of the old town and along the Nam Khan riverside. As soon as I got off the minibus, I put on my backpack and made a beeline through the old town night market and got to the main drag of Sisavangvong Road.  After a few blocks, I turned right on a small side avenue and walked down to where I got to the road overlooking the Nam Khan river. From there, I walked north and found my guesthouse on the left-hand side.

Novice monk studying - Luang Prabang

Novice monk studying – Luang Prabang

I entered my room, took off my pack, and plopped on the bed. I was exhausted. The long drive had sapped me of my strength and the walk to the guesthouse was farther than I had expected. I mustered up what little energy I had in order to connect my tablet device to the WiFi of the guesthouse and booked a ticket on Lao Airlines for my return to Vientiane in 3-days’ time.  I wanted to be sure I had reserved a flight because there were only a few flights from Luang Prabang back to Vientiane and this was the peak travel season. I  just couldn’t have my body and mind absorb another grueling half day overland journey. I had endured the nausea of the girl next to me, the rollicking of the minibus, and a severely tensed up back and neck. I put down my tablet after getting the confirmation for my plane reservation and then stumbled into the bathroom. It was close to 9pm, so I was only planning to do some reading and then falling asleep. I needed to recharge my batteries because I would be getting up early the next day and would be hopping on and off my bicycle going to all the sights around the old town.  I went to the sink and turned on the faucet for the cold water. I splashed the water over my face a few times and when I looked up at the mirror, I noticed a flash in my eyes. It was that look — same as Matthieu’s from earlier that day. As if I had ingested some tonic, my road-weariness shook itself out of me. I was in Luang Prabang — one of the best-preserved and most beautiful cities in Asia. Rich in history, lavish temple art, home to hundreds of monasteries, and surrounded by stunning geography and landscape. It was enchantment. The adrenaline coursed through my body. I quickly threw on some clothes and shoes and was off into the night. No doubt Matthieu was already there.

Laos Calling

8 Sep
Young Laotian Monks looking over the Mekong - Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Young Monks looking over the Mekong – Vientiane, Laos (2014)

Laos is a landlocked country sandwiched between China and Vietnam on one side, and Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia on the other. The center of the country is mountainous with huge karst stone formations shooting out of the earth. There are various rivers intersecting the country from the north to the south and east to the west — the most important of which is the Mekong. In addition to its role in moving people and goods around the country and beyond, the Mekong holds an important position in the Lao national identity because it separates the Laotian capital of Vientiane (or Vieng Chang – translated as the “City of Sandalwood”) from the north-central border of Thailand. So, this river is like a moat and has insulated and defined the borders of those city-state kingdoms which have vied for power in the region throughout the centuries. The Lanna Kingdom was the largest of these regional powers and it dominated a good chunk of north-central Southeast Asia for over 200 years. At its zenith, this kingdom stretched from Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai (which are part of Thailand today) north up to Luang Prabang (the oldest and first capital of Laos). Luang Prabang is today one of the best preserved and temple rich cities in all of Asia. During its time as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Buddhism flourished and a unique Laotian style of artwork employing stencil and mosaic designs was created. But, the same geographic features of Luang Prabang which allowed it to be insulated and free from destruction at the hands of foreign invaders were ultimately the reasons that led to its unseating as capital. The city is like an island that is cut off by the confluence of both the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers from the rest of mountainous terrain around it. Thus, any foreign army that wanted to imprison the Lanna King simply had to surround the city by stationing troops on the 2 main sides of the rivers’ embankments and then block the one overland escape route out of the city. It was because of this vulnerability that King Chaiyasetthathirat (or King Setthatirath) decided in the 1560s to move his capital from Luang Prabang to the southern city of Vientiane.

Ha Phreow - Front facade

Ha Phreow – Front facade

One of King Setthatirath’s first acts at his new capital was to build a temple specifically for the purpose of enshrining the Emerald Buddha. This temple was called Ha Phreow and the Emerald Buddha resided there for the next 215 years until 1778 when a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri (who would become King Rama I of Thailand) stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken to where it is now housed in a temple in Bangkok [See previous post for history of the Emerald Buddha: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ%5D. Ha Phreow was later burned down by another Thai ransacking of Vientiane in the 1820s and was then rebuilt by the French in the 1920s. Today, the inside of Ha Phreow rings a bit hollow because the Emerald Buddha is not there, however, there are a some finely detailed Buddha bronze and stone images located in the front of the temple entrance and other images are placed along the temple’s sides.

Stone Buddha image in double abhaya mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “double abhaya” mudra – Ha Phreow

Most of these Buddha images are about 3/4 the average human size and I found three of them particularly interesting because of their unique mudras. All three images showed the Buddha standing with a cape-like robe and were dark in appearance. The first depicted the Buddha with his hands pointed outward with palms out.  This mudra is known as the “No Fear” or “Don’t Fight” mudra (or the double abhaya mudra). One story credits this gesture to a pose the Buddha used when an elephant charged at him. When the elephant saw the Buddha’s hands push out towards it, the elephant stopped in its tracks and sat down before the Buddha. Other traditions maintain that the Buddha used this gesture in interceding between a conflict between two warring tribes. This mudra has a vaunted position in Laotian Buddhism and one specific image depicting a small standing gold Buddha in the double abhaya mudra is revered above all others in Laos. This image is called the “Pra (or Pha) Bang” Buddha and is thought to have been cast in Sri Lanka in the 1st century AD. It was given as a wedding gift by a Cambodian king to the Lanna king who married his daughter in the 14th century. The Pra Bang Buddha can still be seen in a special temple in the Laotian city that was named after it — Luang Prabang.

Buddha "Calling Rain" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Calling Rain” mudra – Ha Phreow

The other statue that caught my eye was one where the Buddha had his two arms stretched at his sides with his hands flexed downwards. This mudra is known as the “Calling Rain” posture, and, as its name suggests, its origin is tied to a story where the Buddha summoned the skies to rain during a time of draught. The third image I gravitated towards was of the Buddha with his hands crossed — not at his chest — but at his abdomen. When I saw this statue, I immediately thought back to the standing Buddha image I had seen a few years before at Gal Vihara in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka. [See post “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR%5D.

Buddha "Sorrow of Others" mudra - Ha Phreow

Buddha “Sorrow of Others” mudra – Ha Phreow

In that particular Gal Vihara image, the Buddha is standing with his hands crossed at his chest, and the prevailing explanation for this mudra is that it is meant to capture the “Sorrow of Others”. But, at Ha Phreow, the statue I saw had the hands crossed at the Buddha’s stomach area. This had a peculiar effect because upon first glance it looks like the Buddha’s hands are cuffed or in chains. But, there are no chains or bindings of any type on this image. Instead, the image gives a feeling of “resignation” — meaning there is an acknowledgment that suffering in the world exists. Because of that feeling, there is thought by many scholars that this gesture of the Buddha’s hands crossed at his lower body is still a type of “contemplative mudra” similar to that of the statue at Gal Vihara. Both images reflect “sympathizing” with the suffering that is in the world and the plight of those afflicted by such suffering.

Aside from building Ha Phreow, King Setthathirath oversaw the construction of many other important temples in Vientiane — one of which was Wat Si Muang (1563). Wat Si Muang has 2 very intriguing aspects to it. First, unlike any other Buddhist temple that I have ever seen, there is a foundation pillar that sits in the main altar of the temple in an elevated position that is usually reserved for a central Buddha image or other Buddhist iconography.

Foundation Pillar - Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

Foundation Pillar – Wat Si Muang, Vientiane

The main altar room of Wat Si Muang is in the rear hall of the temple. A replica of the Emerald Buddha stands before the wall that separates the rear hall from a larger meeting area which is the front room of Wat Si Muang. As I passed  through the front room and my eyes locked on the Emerald Buddha in front of me, the importance of this image to the Laotian faithful became apparent. Although close to 250 years have passed since the Thai forcibly took the image out of Vientiane, the Lao people have not forgotten its importance. I saw photos and other renderings of the Emerald Buddha tacked in other temples and in stores around Vientiane — as if anticipating the return of the Emerald Buddha one day. I walked by the replica and passed through a doorway that led me to the rear hall of Wat Si Muang. This hall was much smaller and jam-packed with images. In front of the main altar was a black wooden stela image of the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree. This Buddha image was splattered with pieces of gold foil that had been pressed on it by pilgrims and those seeking blessings. Directly above this image on an elevated platform were other Buddha statues and in the middle of these statues was a gold-painted stone pillar which was draped in ceremonial cloth. This pillar is thought to date back to the initial founding of Vientiane itself and legend has it that at the time this pillar was lowered into the ground a pregnant Lao woman by the name of “Nang Si” was compelled to throw herself into the pit where she died.  After the temple was finished, a tradition began where pregnant Lao women came to the temple to ask for special blessings.

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

Exterior Wat Si Muang / Khmer ruins to the right

The second interesting aspect of Wat Si Muang is that it sits on a site that was formerly part of a Khmer temple or complex. Directly outside of Wat Si Muang’s rear hall are the remnants of crumbling black bricks which at one time may have been shaped in the form of a temple platform. This area has now been turned into a shrine and has various Buddha statues placed around it and the central portion of the ruins has a white cloth wrapped around it. Since the Khmer Empire at its height did stretch into Laos, it is not surprising that the Khmer likely did build temples around Vientiane. (In the lower half of Laos, there is “Wat Pho” which is a large Khmer ruin consisting of scattered buildings and other structures designed in a very similar style as those of the Khmer capital of Angkor.) So, Wat Si Muang may ultimately sit on the site of what was originally a 12th or 13th century Khmer temple and outpost. I am not sure how much archaeological study has taken place at the grounds of Wat Si Muang, but given the “monolith” like foundation pillar and the Khmer brick mound sitting in plain sight, it likely has lots of secrets under the surface which will probably never be unearthed.

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Phra Ong Teu Buddha

Another temple of interest in Vientiane is the Ong Teu Mahawihan (Temple of the Heavy Buddha). This temple has the distinction of containing the largest Buddha image in all of Vientiane. This image is made of bronze and some other lesser metals and is called the “Phra Ong Teu” Buddha. King Setthathirath built the temple housing the Phra Ong Teu image, and although the temple was destroyed by the Thai in the 1820s, the Buddha image itself survived. Phra Ong Teu sits on top of a high platform and is flanked by 2 standing Buddha images. I was lucky enough to see this Buddha image soon after the temple had been restored. The inside of the temple is incredibly colorful and the lighting used has a magical effect. I wish the same could be said of That Luang which at one time may have been the most impressive Stupa in all the Lanna Kingdom. That Luang was built by King Setthathirath in 1566 for the purpose of enshrining a bone relic of the Buddha. It has a round base that is very reminiscent of other Stupas in the Buddhist world– such as Sanchi in India, Bodhnath in Kathmandu, and certain Dagobas in Sri Lanka. But, its core rises up into a tight spire similar to Burmese-style Pagodas. Unfortunately, That Luang was completely demolished by the Thai. The French began their first attempt to rebuild it starting in the early 20th century, but this reconstruction stalled and limped along until it was finally finished some time in the 1950s. The French for some reason relied on sketches of That Luang made by a Frenchman in the 1860s– which was after That Luang had already been destroyed by the Thai. I have no idea why they would do that. I can only assume that in their colonial haste, the French just wanted to erect something in order to show their good intentions and didn’t want to fuss with the notion that a “Stupa” could be anything more than a physical monument.

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

That Luang with King Setthathirath statue in front

When I first approached That Luang from its southern entrance, it appeared dazzling. It had a similar beacon-like quality as the Schwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. However, as I got closer the stupa quickly lost its mystery. I could only see large chunks of cement coated in cheap yellow paint. It looked like an armory or missile depository. The outer walls of the stupa had more character than the Stupa itself.  I walked around the Stupa a few times — and absorbed its being from every angle and vantage point. It just did not create the feeling of reverence like other Stupas I had experienced. There was a feeling of stillborn glory and it seemed “forced”.  There were no streams of pilgrims or people circumambulating, praying, or leaving offerings within the shrine areas of the Stupa.

That Luang

That Luang

While perhaps the lack of religious practice at That Luang may be attributable to the Marxist leanings of Lao politics over the last few decades, I also think that it is difficult to breathe the mystical into modern concrete. Sadly, That Luang, Wat Si Muang, and virtually all other temples in Vientiane that King Setthathirath had constructed during his reign (the “golden age” of Laotian history) were destroyed by the Thai in the early 19th century.

Wat Si Saket (1818)

Wat Si Saket (1818)

The oldest surviving temple in Vientiane today is Wat Si Saket which was built in 1818 — over 250 years after King Setthathirath. It is not clear why the Thai spared this temple when they attacked Vientiane in the 1820s. Some historians think that because Wat Si Saket has elements of Thai design, it may have reminded the Thai of their own Wat Saket (the Golden Mount) in Bangkok [See post “Remains of the Wat-age” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-F6%5D. The Thai actually used the grounds of Wat Si Saket as their military compound and their soldiers slept and ate there while waging their siege on Vientiane.

Restored area of wall - Wat Si Saket

Restored area of wall – Wat Si Saket

Wat Si Saket is surrounded by a large square wall with a covered walkway. All along the inside of the wall are triangular alcoves which are filled with thousands of small seated Buddhas. This wall originally was painted with pastel colors of blue and pink and some small sections of the wall have been recently restored showing this vibrant coloring. The inside of Wat Si Saket is actually much smaller than what may think from viewing the exterior of the temple. No photographs are allowed inside the temple because of its delicate state. There are faded murals on its walls and a small altar sits at the back with an old wooden seated Buddha image. I was able to snap a photo of a small portion of one of the temple’s murals through a window while standing outside of the temple, but could not manage a photo of the old Buddha image which was shrouded in darkness from my standing point outside the temple.

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

Mural inside Wat Si Saket

The roof of Wat Si Saket has 5-tiers — each staggered broadly above the other.  Based on what I would see after traveling north to Luang Prabang, I was later able to understand the difference of the roof and overall design of Wat Si Saket as compared to the style of temples that King Setthathirath constructed in the 1500s. In those other temples, the roof is pancaked tight and soars nearly vertically into the sky. The middle sections of the roofs of those temples also have what look like large candelabras on them. These roof elements serve as symbolic representations of sacred Mt. Meru and contain 7 distinct spires — each symbolizing different stages towards enlightenment. The center section of the highest roof of Wat Si Saket only has a reliquary (or small vessel to carry a Buddhist relic or scripture) with 2 phoenix-like birds standing on either side. The reliquary design is very similar to classical Thai design and is almost basic when compared to the elaborate roof elements found on the temples of Luang Prabang.

Roof element - Wat Si Saket

Roof element – Wat Si Saket

My next stop was then Luang Prabang.  I was not planning on flying there from Vientiane. I wanted to take a bus, so that I could see the Laotian landscape. I had heard the drive to Luang Prabang would be slow and consist of grueling mountain stretches, but I was game. It couldn’t be worse than my “massage road” experience in Cambodia… I remember that exact thought as I took a swig from my bottle of Beerlao during my last night in Vientiane. I was watching the sun lower itself behind a bend of the Mekong River. A couple of fishermen were out on their long wooden boats and casting their nets. There was a live band in the restaurant that was singing John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me”.  Tears trickled down the bridge of my nose — not because of the sights or the song — but because I had ordered some insanely spicy Laotian beef dish. As I felt my lips blister, I took some strange enjoyment out of it. Little did I know how apt that feeling would be in describing my trip the next day.

Massage Road

29 Jul
Border crossing from Aryanthrapet, Thailand to Poitpet, Cambodia (2006)

Border crossing from Aranyaprathet, Thailand to Poipet, Cambodia (2006)

A sense of unease marked my approach to Cambodia. My pre-trip research had revealed that while crossing into the Cambodian border town of Poipet from the Thai entry point of Aranyaprathet was no sweat, the trick would be getting from Poipet to Siem Reap – gateway to the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. There were only 3 choices for available transport: (1) hitching a ride on a pickup truck; (2) hailing a taxi-like Toyota Camry, or (3) finding a bus. But, there were no reliable timetables for any of these options, so I had no idea what I would find once I got to Poipet. My preference was to go with #2 — the Toyota taxi. This option would cost more, but at least I would have some control over where it was going. The contrast between exiting Thailand and entering Cambodia was immediate. Thailand has an efficient infrastructure of roads and rail with a wide network of public transport running on fixed timetables. Cambodia was horribly ravaged by the Khmer Rouge for decades and is still trying to piece itself together. As I crossed over the border and entered Poipet, paved roads vanished and were subsumed by clay and rubble. I was told Poipet had a certain rhyme-like quality to it that brought to mind “toilet” and within a few strides into this desperate and grimy border town that was evident. But, I didn’t get much time to absorb the delights of Poipet because the skies quickly darkened and I was soon pelted by a hard beating rain. The clay under my feet transformed into a churning sludge and I ran fast to the first place I saw in the distance which had a roof. While waiting for the rain to stop, I met some other backpackers who were also headed to Siem Reap. They told me that they had a guide who had arranged for a bus to pick them up at 1pm. I was skeptical, but because I saw no sign of any other transportation and I thought the rain may have scared off other drivers, I decided to hang with them. I walked with the group over to a bus depot, and to my surprise, a vehicle entered and parked alongside us within a few minutes. However, it wasn’t a bus — mini-mini bus is more apt. How we fit 20 backpackers and 2 guides into that bus still boggles my mind (although years later I would be crammed into another mini-mini bus with 16 others for a 12hr journey in Laos that rivaled the drive to Siem Reap; to be described in an upcoming post).

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex - Angkor, Cambodia

The approach to Angkor Wat temple complex – Angkor, Cambodia

It was 2006 when I travelled to Siem Reap and at that time the “road” from Poipet to Siem Reap consisted only of packed red clay with some iron panels laid flat in certain areas. Maybe the road has since been paved, but I experienced it at a time when it was called by locals as the “massage road” — a euphemism for the deep tissue pounding wrought on any individual who had the privilege to drive over it.  The numbing effects of the massage road took on further visceral meaning for me since I was lucky enough to be sitting on this mini-mini bus, which was packed to the gills with people, bags, and basically dragged its chassis on the ground during the entire time. I had studied a map and estimated that the journey would, at most, take 4 hours. Siem Reap was only around 165km away from Poipet.  But, the guides on the mini-mini bus had other ideas. The bus maintained a top speed of 30km/hr, which I could understand was necessary in spots where the road was filled with holes, trenches, or boulders, but the fact that we kept getting passed time and time again by other trucks and cars made me skeptical of what was really going on. We also stopped twice — once for a food & bathroom break — the second was by force when the bus suddenly veered off the road and pulled into a small village. The guides told us that the bus had a flat tire and so we had to get off the bus and wait until it was fixed. Everyone filed off the bus and I looked on incredulously as the bus then drove away with everyone’s bags still on board! The other backpackers were shaking their heads in disbelief and were all questioning the mysterious flat tire. It had been around 5 hours of torture so far. After about an hour of waiting around, the bus returned and the guides happily explained the tire had been fixed. The remaining hours of the trip unfurled in uncomfortable silence broken only by the occasional “ooouch” and “aaargh” of moaning coming from passengers who hit their heads on the roof of the bus or crushed one another when the bus hit another rock or went over hole. Nightfall had also cast us in an eerie blackness and there were no lights whatsoever along the way. So, a nervousness and fear of accident filled the bus. I was miserably cramped in my seat, stinking in my own sweat (no a/c on the bus), and had no feeling in my legs since my backpack rested on my knees and had cut off circulation. I had images dart in and out of my feverish mind: I saw myself skimming along the road on one of those Toyota Camry taxis, settling into my room Siem Reap, taking a shower, having a cold glass of water… My headed bobbed every now and then as fatigue forced me to shut my eyes, but then I would be violently jerked to a full state of alertness when the bus inevitably lurched in some direction.

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

Macaque stalking the ruins of Angkor

After one particularly nasty jerk of the bus, my eyelids flew open and I saw a faint glow in the distance. These had to be coming from Siem Reap!! I would soon be getting off this bus! We got closer and closer, and then, inexplicably, we continued past the town and sank back into darkness. Some of the people in the front of the bus loudly asked the guides where we were going. One of the guides said that the bus was taking us to the station which was outside of town. But, when the bus finally stopped it was clear what had happened. The guides had hijacked us to some out-of-the way guesthouse. They dropped us off there and in a humdrum manner declared that this guesthouse had the best rates. They obviously would get a cut of all the room bookings from the owner of the guesthouse. I told them that I had reserved a room back in town, but they insisted my guesthouse was closed. At this point, my patience with the guides had run out and I just turned my back on them and walked away. Luckily, I found a tuk-tuk driver sitting outside the guesthouse. Two Japanese backpackers who had been on the bus with me walked over to me and asked what I was doing. I explained that I had a place to stay in Siem Reap and was going there. They told me they also were staying in Siem Reap and asked whether they could ride into town with me. So, we struck an arrangement with the tuk-tuk driver to take the 3 of us to our respective lodgings in Siem Reap. When I arrived at my guesthouse (actually called Mom’s Guest House), the proprietor, Mrs. Kong, who was expecting me came out to greet me. The room I was staying in was $5 a night, but it was the best $5 I had ever spent by far in my life. It was 10pm, I had been on that bus for over 8 hours and was wiped out. My neck and shoulders were twisted up in knots and I was sore everywhere else. I had 3 days to immerse myself in Angkor, so I tried not to dwell on my maddening massage road ordeal. I thought only of the next day and the sights awaiting me.

Dancing Apsaras - Angkor

Dancing Apsaras

In the morning, I took a bike from Mrs. Kong and rode through the center of Siem Reap before I found my way to the entrance of Angkor — the last stretch of which passes by huge luxury hotels like Raffles and Le Meridien before the archaeological area begins. I purchased a 3-day pass (which requires a passport-sized photo for non-Cambodians) and spent the morning to dusk of each day exploring as much of the Khmer capital as I could. As described in a previous post (See “At The Dawn of Happiness” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-Du), Angkor was founded as the capital of the Khmer Empire in the early 9th century and was the most populated city of its time. The first Khmer Kings were adherents of Hinduism and so stories from the Hindu epic, the Ramayana, along with celestial beings like Apsaras were carved throughout the walls of the city. With each new Khmer King, new temples and structures were added to Angkor. In the early 12th century, the Khmer King Suryavarman II constructed the world’s largest temple complex known as Angkor Wat which was originally meant to capture a microcosm of the Hindu universe where the supreme-god Vishnu would be able to reside in quiet contemplation of all creation. Buddhism was not adopted as the dominant religion of the Khmer Empire until King Jayavarman VII ascended to the throne in the late 12th century. He ruled for 30 years (from 1181 to 1218AD) and is considered by most historians as the greatest Khmer King. He was a devotee of Mahayana Buddhism and one of his most important acts was to rededicate Angkor Wat as a Buddhist temple. He also actively expanded the city centre of the capital and constructed several new temples. Some of his most well-known additions to Angkor include Ta Prohm, Preah Khan, Bayon (Jayavarman’s face is built into the sides of many portions of this pyramid-like temple since he sought to depict himself as a bodhisattva of compassion), and Angkor Thom. Interestingly, within a few decades after the death of King Jayavarman VII, the practice of Mayahana Buddhism within the Khmer Empire was largely replaced by Theravada Buddhism. One of the reasons for this shift to Theravada practice is that King Jayavaraman VII had a son who went to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism and became a monk in the Sinhalese Theravada tradition. When the son returned to Angkor, he espoused the Theravada teachings he had learned which quickly spread through the capital and throughout the Khmer Empire.

Silk Tree at Teah Prohm - Angkor

Silk Cotton Tree at Ta Prohm – Angkor

The Khmer Empire ultimately came to an end when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya invaded and conquered Angkor in the 15th century. Thereafter, the inhabitants of Angkor began to leave, the creeping jungle slowly swallowed it up, and it became lost for centuries. But, what was not lost was Theravada Buddhism which had taken root after King Jayavarman VII’s death and became further entrenched as a result of the conquering Thai. Today, Theravada Buddhism is still the dominant religion of Cambodia notwithstanding the fact that the Khmer Rouge did their utmost to eradicate its practice. At the end of my first day at Angkor, I climbed up a hill called Phnom Bakheng which is located to the north of Angkor Wat. Many tourists and villagers go up to the top of this hill to watch the sunset and see how the fading sunlight changes the color of Angkor Wat which one can see below. From the hilltop, I was able to comprehend how enormous Angkor was and saw the boundaries and moats which the Khmer had so methodically engineered in order to protect and sustain its large population (ironically, one prevailing theory today as to why people ultimately abandoned the capital was that problems with proper irrigation for farming led to its collapse). I took several photos which captured the light dancing off Angkor Wat in all sorts of different shades. It was mesmerizing and I was rabid in anticipation of many more incredible scenes and photo ops that I would certainly experience over the next few days. Then, a funny thing happened. As I was pedaling on my bike and turning to exit the archaeological park which was closing, a small car with an attached food cart trailer came up on my left side. I tried to be sure that the car had a wide berth so it could pass me cleanly, but somehow my front wheel bumped a wheel on the trailer and I went flying over my handle bars. I don’t remember the pain of my fall. I only remember looking up and blinking at the face of someone staring down at me with concern. It was the driver of the car. He spoke a little English and asked me if I was OK. I stood up with a shakiness and tried to get my bearings. I saw the bent front frame of my bike a few meters away from me. I then looked down and saw my dented camera near my feet. I think somehow the impact of my fall was absorbed by my camera which I had strapped around my torso. I slowly wrapped my mind as to what had just happened and then I realized I was not seriously hurt. I exhaled in relief and looked at the man. I could only smile. He smiled back. I started to laugh and shake my head. I told him I was OK and shook his hand goodbye.

Female Monk - Angkor Wat

Female Monk – Angkor Wat

I was touched that he had stopped his car and come over to see if I was OK. He could have easily driven off, especially if he thought he had hit a tourist who was seriously injured. I picked up my camera and inspected it. It was dented, but the roll of film inside seemed unharmed and the camera appeared to still function. Little did I know that my camera was basically useless. Something inside the lens or shutter had cracked, and although I took over 12 rolls of film over the next few days, only a handful of the pictures were able to be developed. There you have it then — I had arrived via a ridiculously long and nerve-wracking journey and then found myself busted flat on the road during my first day at Angkor. I’m not sure I learned any lessons. I just picked myself off the ground, fixed the bent frame of my bike, and hopped back on. When it was time for me to leave and get back to Thailand, I did make sure to take one of those Toyotas back to the border. So, I guess that was a lesson learned — there was no way was I going to repeat the massage road experience. And you know how long the drive back to Poipet from Siem Reap took? 65 minutes.

Long Time No Monk Chat

22 Jun
Central altar in Wat

Central altar in Wat Phan Tao (1848) –  Chiang Mai, Thailand (2006)

I took an overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Because I bought my ticket within an hour of the train’s departure from Bangkok, all the sleeper cabins in the train were occupied. I took a seat in the 2nd class cabin which was very nice, except that the seats had limited recline and this would be an 11-hour train ride with stops along the way. When the train pulled into the Chiang Mai train station at around 10am, my first task was to find a place to crash for the next 3 days. I had not reserved a room anywhere, but knew that Chiang Mai would have no shortage of hostels, guest-houses, and hotels available for roving chaps like myself. I stumbled along the city centre area until I found a decent-looking guest-house with a room available. I fell asleep immediately as I flopped on the bed. Chiang Mai sits at an altitude of about 310m (1,000+ ft) and is cradled by the serenity of green hills and mountains. So, the air has a coolness to it — free of the stifling heat and humid canopy of Bangkok.  Although it is the second most populated city in Thailand, it does not project the incessant push and pull crammed sprawl of a big city. It is like a pocket of tranquility — filled with evening mist, forested enclaves, and a laid back attitude. When I woke up in the early afternoon after my short snooze on that first day, I looked out of the window of my room and instantly tuned into Chiang Mai. I understood the vibe. I actually felt relieved to be out of Bangkok and was ready to just get on a bicycle and roll around with no agenda.

Wat Suan Dok

Wat Suan Dok

Chiang Mai was founded in 1296AD and was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom for nearly 500 years. During that period, it was the main rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya to the south.  The bulk of the many Wats in Chiang Mai contain golden Chedis designed in the Lanna-style — like narrow golden bells.  The influence of the next door Burmese can also be found in many Chedis in the city which have square bases. Each Wat in Chiang Mai consists of 3 elements: 1) the “viharn” which is usually a spacious roofed area which serves as the assembly / meeting area for monks; 2) the Chedi or Stupa which typically enshrines some important historical or body relic; and 3) the Buddha statues or images within the main chamber room of the Wat. As I biked around the city, my eyes became fixed on a white dot nestled between some green hills in the distance. This was Wat Phrat That Doi Suthep or “Doi Suthep” as it was called. Legend has it that in the 14th century a monk from Sukhothai had a vision in which he was compelled to dig at a site somewhere in Thailand. He unearthed a shoulder bone fragment at that site and believed it to belong to the Buddha. He took the relic to the king of Sukhothai who attempted to verify the authenticity of the relic by conducting a ritual to showcase its miraculous properties. But, when the relic did not exhibit any kind of special or supernatural power, the Sukhothai king gave the relic back to the monk. However, the story of this relic had traveled north to Chiang Mai which at the time was ruled by King Nu Naone. King Naone was very interested in the monk’s story and summoned the monk before him.  When the relic was showed to the King, it split into two pieces. King Naone placed one of the pieces on the back of a white elephant which took off towards the mountains surrounding Chiang Mai. The elephant walked mid-way up one of the mountains, trumpeted 3 times, and then laid down and died.  The King took this as a sign that a temple was to be built on that site and the first Chedi was built there in 1383. Through the passing centuries, a large platform with multiple Chedis and a statue of the white elephant were constructed at Doi Suthep. I visited Doi Suthep on my second day in Chiang Mai and walked up a huge staircase framed with Nagas (Hindu serpent deities) which led up to the hill-site of Doi Suthep. The views of Chiang Mai from Doi Suthep were incredible.

Rod iron Buddha Image window from Inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

Wrought iron window of Buddha image from inside the viharn at Wat Suan Dok

The other piece of bone that came into being after the relic had split in front of the King was interred within one of the Chedis af Wat Suan Dok (Flower Garden Temple) which is one of Chiang Mai’s oldest surviving temples. It dates back to 1373 and the temple is also the site of Mahachulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya Buddhist University — an important Theravada Buddhist school where monks from all over Southeast Asia come to study. Wat Suan Dok has a program in conjunction with the university where monks meet foreigners interested in Buddhism. This program is called “Monk Chat” and I was hoping to make it to one of these sessions while I was in Chiang Mai. I headed west on my bike and because I wasn’t paying attention, I over-shot Wat Suan Dok. By the time I figured out that I had gone too far, I was in a very leafy area filled with tall trees. I decided to make a left turn onto one of the quiet side streets shooting away from the main road and to my delight I came to Wat U Mong. Wat U Mong is an idyllic forest monastery filled with meditation tunnels and stone Chedis. Wooden signs with sayings of the Buddha are tacked on hundreds of trees throughout the monastery grounds. I had arrived here completely by accident. I hopped off my bike and wandered.

Meditation tunnels - Wat U Mong

Meditation tunnels – Wat U Mong

I ducked into the meditation tunnels and sat on the cool tiled floor. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to focus my thoughts inward while inside the tunnel. I had not planned on trying to meditate — it just naturally happened. The tunnel was like a big neural pathway to facilitating meditation. A portal. The monks who had dug these caves really knew what they were doing!  I had one deeply meaningful and personal reflection which hit me like a lighting bolt while I was in the tunnel. I still remember it now — 8 years later as I type this. It is not something that I would share as part of this blog – but I do believe the realization I was able to attain in that tunnel at Wat U Mong was something that probably would not have come to me during the usual pace and activity of my life.  When I emerged out of the tunnel, I walked up to a clearing on a small mound and there before me was one of the most horrifying Buddha images that I had ever seen. This image was obsidian black — a blackness that accentuated the gauntness of the Buddha’s face, the jutted implosion of his ribcage, and the disintegration of his arms and legs.  I adjusted slowly to this Buddha which was strikingly incongruent to the usual brightly gilded and beautiful Buddha images I had seen in Thailand and throughout Asia.

Fasting Buddha - Wat U Mong

Fasting Buddha – Wat U Mong

This was the “Fasting Buddha” — a stark depiction of the Buddha when he hit a near dead-end in his quest for enlightenment. At that point in his life, he was following the ways of the strict ascetics of his time who believed that self-denial and deprivation were the proper spiritual paths toward attaining supreme knowledge [See post: “Wilderness” – http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-2n%5D. I began to understand why this image looked like some alien creature with little trace of any humanness — it was meant to serve as a reminder that even the Buddha had previously failed on his journey towards enlightenment and this failure took him to the brink of death.

Administrative Office / Monk Chat - Wat Suan Dok

Administrative Office / Monk Chat – Wat Suan Dok

As the afternoon was turning into night, I got back on my bike and double backed towards Wat Suan Dok. I had a funny feeling that the Monk Chat program would be closed because it was after 5pm. I pedaled as fast as I could. Within a few meters of my entrance to the temple grounds, I saw a modern-looking administrative building which I thought may be connected with the program. I was right. I entered the room and it appeared the place was closed. Sure enough, I saw a sign stating that the hours for Monk Chat were 9:30am to 5pm. It was now 5:35pm. My shoulders slumped and I turned away. As I was walking out, a voice called out to me. I looked back and there were 3 smiling monks before me. I went to greet them and they told me they were novice monks from Cambodia who were students at the university there.  They said that the official Monk Chat program for the day had finished, but wanted to know if I was interested in talking with them anyway since they wanted to practice their English. I excitedly agreed and sat down with them in a small room.  Since I was fresh off my experience in the meditation tunnels of Wat U Mong, I told the monks about it. I tried to explain how unbelievable it was to journey so nakedly inward in a flash of moment and come to an important realization that would otherwise elude one given the bombardment of distraction in everyday life.

Eson and friends

Eson (middle) and friends

One of the monks seemed very interested in the experience. His name was Eson and we shared some personal histories with one another for nearly an hour. When the monks had to finally get up and leave, Eson and I exchanged email addresses and for 3-years afterwards we continued to correspond with one another. In his last email to me, he told me that he had to leave the Sangha (the monkhood) in order to go back to Cambodia and help his family with their financial situation. He was going to become a taxi driver in Phnom Penh. I’m sad to say that we lost touch after that. He was probably around 20 to 22 years old when we met that day at Wat Suan Dok. He said something to me then which sounded funny and simple at the time, but has grown in its meaning to me over the years. He said people have “monkey mind” — meaning their thoughts, acts, behaviors, and wants dart like a monkey jumping from branch to branch of a tree. It is not in our nature to stand still and to focus in order to truly have intent behind any act of our mind, speech, or bodies. When one learns to quiet the mind, body, and speech in order to act with purpose, then that’s how spiritual growth takes root. But, that’s a skill one must learn and practice with tenacity over time. It is not easy. We are also all susceptible to outside forces that knock us off the branch — a branch we think we have under our control. I think back to the smile on Eson’s face when we said good-bye and then I envision him behind the wheel of his cab, navigating traffic as he adroitly drives a passenger to where they need to go. There’s a symmetry in that scene and my chat with him. I like that.

Remains of The Wat-age

26 Apr
The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho -  Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

The Reclining Buddha of Wat Pho – Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

“Bangkok” is not the actual name of the city. The name kicks off with “Krung Thep” (which means something like “village of wild plums”) and consists of several adulatory words strung together and pronounced in rapid fire Thai which describe the city’s key hallmarks — one of which (not surprisingly) is that this is the place where the Emerald Buddha resides. Another part of the name is the call out that unlike Ayutthaya — this city is “impregnable”. Just like its verbose sprawl of a name, Bangkok is a free-wheeling, international mecca attracting all sorts of colorful characters. On the surface, a visitor to the city is bombarded with rush-hour traffic along with the incessant commercialism and hedonistic glitter of a behemoth capital of the tropics, but if one takes the time to go behind this facade, the steady pulse of Theravada Buddhism can easily be experienced in the countless temples (wats), shrines, monasteries, and other grounds of contemplation not yet swallowed up by rampant urbanism.

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Head of Reclining Buddha at Wat Pho

I start first with Wat Pho which is a restored temple built over the grounds of what was likely the oldest Buddhist temple in Bangkok. The Wat Pho complex is adjacent to the Grand Palace/Wat Phra Keo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha). The current temple design of Wat Pho was created in the early 1800s by King Rama III and houses a 43m (141ft) long Buddha in the lion/reclining pose. This Buddha is tightly squeezed within the temple and has the facial and body characteristics found in the  classical style of the Sukhothai period. The Buddha is made of a brick core and a plaster exterior that has been covered and smooth over with gold foil. Its face bears a slight smile — reminiscent of the smile of the stone Reclining Buddha of Gal Vihara in Sri Lanka (see “The Colossi of Gal Vihara” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-kR).  While not as long as the reclining Buddhas I’ve seen in Burma (i.e., the Shewethalyaung Buddha in Bago, Burma built in 994AD and 55m long — see “The Python Who Was Once A Monk” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-wW; or the 65m long Chaukhtatgyi Buddha in Rangoon — see “William of Yangon” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-s1), the feet of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho contain a unique artistic flourish.

Mother-of-Pearl feet

Mother-of-Pearl feet

The statue’s feet are 3m high and 4.5m long and the bottom of each foot has been meticulously inlaid with mother-of-pearl. These mother-of-pearl soles have then been carved and divided into 108 rectangular tiles which depict specific Buddhist iconography and symbols — such as cranes, tigers, elephants, lotus blossoms, and altars. Within the center of each foot is a dense circular flower petal design which invokes the wheel of the Dharma. Behind the statue, the 108 panels of each foot are echoed in the form of 108 bronze prayer bowls placed in a row where coins may be donated by visitors.

The central prang of Wat Arun

The central prang of Wat Arun

Across the Chao Phraya River from Wat Pho and the Grand Palace complex is one of Bangkok’s best known sites — Wat Arun (Temple of the Dawn). This temple is lit up each night and sits on a site that dates back to the 17th century. When the Emerald Buddha was carried away from Laos and brought to Thailand, it was first placed by King Rama I at Wat Arun until Wat Phra Keo was constructed. Wat Arun has a steeply terraced middle tower (called a “prang”) that is influenced by Khmer design. The ashes of King Rama II are enshrined within the grounds of Wat Arun since he is credited with restoring the temple during his reign. Traces of the origin story of the Emerald Buddha (see previous post: “The Jewel of the Chao Phraya” at http://wp.me/p2Bq4y-DJ) are found in the history of another important religious piece in Bangkok — the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit.

The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit (2006)

The Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit (2006)

The temple of Wat Traimit contains what is to believed to be the world’s largest solid gold statue: a 5.5 ton/5500kg Golden Buddha in the “vanquishing of Mara” pose. This Buddha is about 3m tall and gold to its core — unlike other “gold” Buddhas which are actually brick or stucco-based with gold-foiled exteriors. But, for over 200 years this statue sat in Wat Traimit in obscurity. It was believed to be one of the remaining intact stone Buddha images that were transported to Bangkok from the ruins of Ayutthaya and nothing more. No one suspected anything about the statue’s true nature until the 1950s when the statue fell during an attempt to move it. At first the workers assigned to moving the statue thought they had broken the statue because of the big crack that appeared. But, as they took a closer look at the cracked statue, they saw something flickering back at them. They chipped away the plaster coating and the gold Buddha emerged. It was thought that the monks at Ayutthaya had purposely tried to hide this priceless image from the invading Burmese by disguising it under a coating that would make it look like the other stone Buddha images of the old capital. When I visited Wat Traimit, the temple was in a state of disrepair and the Golden Buddha sat on a simple platform under a flat roof with little else. In 2010, the Thai government in conjunction with the Thai Sangha finished construction of a large new temple where the Golden Buddha was then placed. This new temple also has a museum section devoted to the history of the Golden Buddha.

The Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan

The Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan

Tucked off a small avenue near the busy King Rama VIII Rd in the northern district of Bangkok is another temple of note — Wat Intharawihan. At this Wat, there is a tall Standing Buddha (32m high and 10m wide) which dates back to the Ayutthaya period (17th century). This Standing Buddha has a particularly striking face with a large triangular nose. This face made such a lasting imprint in my mind that 2 years later when I was in Singapore I saw its doppleganger at the Temple of 1,000 Lights. This temple in Singapore was built in 1932 and contains a large (15m height/300 tonnes) seated Buddha known as the “Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya”.

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya at Temple of 1000 Lights - Singapore (2008)

Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya at Temple of 1000 Lights – Singapore (2008)

When I learned that the person who had commissioned the construction of this temple and Buddha was Thai, I was convinced that this person had to have been influenced by the face of the Standing Buddha of Wat Intharawihan. The 2 faces are like mirrors of one another — although constructed out of different materials and built many 3 centuries apart.

Wat Saket atop the Golden Mount

Wat Saket atop the Golden Mount – Bangkok

Phu Khao Thong or the Golden Mount is a man-made hill that is found in the center of Bangkok. On top is Wat Saket — a chedi with gold foil applied to its exterior. Inside this chedi is a relic of the Buddha that was brought from Sri Lanka. The hill itself is actually the remains of an enormous brick chedi that was in the process of being constructed, but due to poor design and engineering this structure collapsed. During the passing centuries, the bricks eroded and the onslaught of rain and mud resulted in the formation of a big lump. King Rama V then oversaw the conversion of this lump into a hill with trees,vegetation, and a series of steps and pathways were built in order to lead people to the top where Wat Saket pierced the sky.

Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)

Wat Benchamabophit (Marble Temple)

In the late 19th century, King Rama V finished building another temple in Bangkok — Wat Benchamabophit (or the Marble Temple). This tranquil and impeccably designed temple has an air of modernism about it — although it is now over a 100 years old. Inside the main temple hall is an exquisite Buddha image that was cast in 1920.  I happened to visit the Marble Temple after the tail-end of a heavy, but short rainstorm. From the moment I entered the temple grounds, all the chaos and blight of the Bangkok summer felt wiped away as if hit by a flash flood.

The Lotus Buddha inside the Marble Temple

The Seated Buddha inside the Marble Temple

The masonry and the lines of this temple are immaculate. The Buddha within its core sits serenely before a canvas of sea-blue. I felt cleansed — and it wasn’t because of the rain. It was because I had been quickly absorbed into the quiet bosom of this sacred space. I can remember singing along to “One Night In Bangkok” when it first came out in the 80s. I never really paid attention to the lyrics until the time of my first trip to the city. There’s a line in the chorus of the song that says “you’ll find a god in every golden cloister.”  No doubt this line may have various interpretations. But, it takes on a literal meaning when you do actually explore the side-streets (or “soi”) of this city because there is usually some golden image there to greet you. Some like the Golden Buddha of Wat Traimit are on celebratory display. Others may be hidden beneath plaster coatings, but maybe — if one goes beyond the cacophony of Khao San Road, the sleek din of Sukhumvit, and the carny pleasure of Patpong — these still await discovery.

The Jewel of the Chao Phraya

17 Mar
View of Wat Phra Keo temple complex - Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

View of Wat Phra Keo temple complex – Bangkok, Thailand (2006)


It’s rare to be able to identify the spiritual heart and soul of a nation within 1 religious work of art.  Yet, that’s what the Emerald Buddha represents to Thailand. While this Buddha image is not actually made of emerald (likely chiseled from a jadeite, nephrite or jasper stone) and is small in height (the statue itself is about 48cm or less than 2ft tall ), it has played a significant role in the legitimacy of the current Chakri dynasty and as an augur for the prosperity of the Thai people. Its origins are shrouded in mystery. Legend holds that it was cast first in India about 500 years after the Buddha died under the direction of a prominent Brahmin turned Buddhist sage known as Nagasena who lived in Patna — not from Kushinagar where the Buddha had died. Due to invasions and battles in the area, the Emerald Buddha was transported further and further south and ultimately came to Sri Lanka.  It stayed there for centuries until one of the Burmese Kings of Bagan struck a deal with a Sinhalese King to have the Emerald Buddha shipped to Bagan which was at the time the center for Buddhist religious teaching and study.

Guardian Deity - outside Wat Phra Keow - Bangkok, Thailand (2006)

Guardian Demon – Wat Phra Keo

The Emerald Buddha never made it to Burma. Instead, a storm hit the ship carrying the statue out of Sri Lanka and the ship was blown off course. Somehow, the Emerald Buddha found its way to Cambodia where it was taken to Angkor. Then, when the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya sacked Angkor in 1431AD, one of the spoils looted from the great Khmer capital was the Emerald Buddha. However, other evidence has been discovered by Thai historians suggesting that the Emerald Buddha first appeared in Chiang Rai in the 1430s. At that time, Chiang Rai was part of the Lanna Kingdom which occupied a big chunk of what is today northern Thailand and in the 15th century was a rival to the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya in the south.  These historians point to records which speak of a large stupa in Chiang Rai toppling after being struck by lighting in 1434.  A monk who then combed through the debris of this stupa found a small stone figure of the Buddha. He placed this figure in the prayer hall of his monastery. Some time later, another monk happened to notice a small chip in the torso of this Buddha statue and upon further examination realized that the statue was actually coated by some kind of plaster or lacquer. He removed the coating and there beneath was the beautiful dark green crystal of the Emerald Buddha. So, the Angkor and Chiang Rai origination stories are problematic because how could the Emerald Buddha be in 2 places at the same time? Regardless of how the Emerald Buddha made its way to Thailand, the timeline as to what happened after the Emerald Buddha arrived/appeared is much better documented.

Ha Phreo - Vientiane, Laos (2013)

Ha Phreow – Vientiane, Laos (2013)

At some point around 1450AD, the Emerald Buddha was moved from Chiang Rai (or taken from Ayutthaya depending on which origination story one follows) to Chiang Mai where it stayed until 1551. Chiang Mai was the most important region of the Lanna Kingdom and it was governed by Chao Chaiyasetthathirat who was the son of the Lanna King, Phra Chao Phothisan. King Phothisan resided in Luang Prabang — a city farther north from Chiang Mai in what is today Laos. When King Photisan died, Chaiyasetthathirat had to leave Chiang Mai in order to make the arduous journey to attend his father’s funeral in Luang Prabang. Because he feared a coup or foreign invasion in Chiang Mai while he was gone, he decided to take the Emerald Buddha with him to Luang Prabang. Sure enough, within some days after he left, Burmese forces invaded north Thailand and pushed Chaiyasetthathirat’s armies across the Mekong River where they became cut off from Thailand. Chaiyasetthathirat had to stay in Luang Prabang which became his new capital and many spectacular Buddhist temples with exteriors and interiors painted with unique stencil-like design and patterns were built. However, Chaiyasetthathirat worried about being stuck in Luang Prabang and isolated from the rest of his kingdom, so he decided to move his capital south to Vientiane in the 1560s. Again, he took the Emerald Buddha with him. A gorgeous temple was built in Vientiane for the Emerald Buddha called Ha Phreow. The Emerald Buddha would reside in Ha Phreow for the next two hundred and fifteen years until 1778. Ha Phreow would ultimately be destroyed by Thai forces and rebuilt by the French in 1920s based on old descriptions and sketches of what the temple looked like in the 1560s. In 1778, a Thai general by the name of Chao Phra Chakri stormed across the Mekong River with his army and captured Vientiane. The Emerald Buddha was carried out of Ha Phreow and taken south to Thonburi which was where the Thai King, Taksin, resided. Taksin first placed the Emerald Buddha in a building near the site of Wat Arun. After Taksin’s death, Chao Phra Chakri ascended to the throne and crowned himself Rama I. He moved the site of the Thai capital across the Chao Phraya river to its present location in Bangkok. More importantly, Rama I constructed a temple for the specific purpose of housing the Emerald Buddha. In 1789, this temple which was called Wat Phra Keo (or the “Residence of the Holy Jewel Buddha”) was constructed within the Grand Palace complex where Rama I himself lived. The Emerald Buddha has sat atop a gold and diamond-studded pedestal inside Wat Phra Keo ever since.

Wat Phra Keow

Wat Phra Keo – exterior

Today, the Grand Palace is a big tourist draw and anyone can enter Wat Phra Keo in order to glimpse the Emerald Buddha — although no photos are allowed.  No monks live inside Wat Phra Keo either. At the start of each season (winter, monsoon, and summer) of the Thai year, the current Thai King (King Bhumibol or King Rama IX) performs a ritual that dates back to Rama I. The King will climb up a ladder positioned behind the Emerald Buddha and clean the statue with a cloth. Then, the King will change the attire of the Emerald Buddha based on which season is starting. The Emerald Buddha has 3 different golden garments that reflect each of the 3 seasons. For the winter season, the Emerald Buddha wears a golden frock that covers its entire torso.

Phra Si Ratana

Phra Si Ratana Chedi

There are many things to see in the Grand Palace complex.  The palace itself is a bold, ambitious building – a testament to King Rama I and his vision of a unified Thailand led by a new dynasty sanctioned by the presence of the Emerald Buddha. Within its inner compound where Wat Phra Keo is found, there are a number of stupas, statues, platforms, and other buildings. One interesting structure of note is the Phra Si Ratana Chedi which is a gold stupa built in the 19th century. It is thought to enshrine ashes of the Buddha that were transported to Thailand from Sri Lanka.  Another structure called Phra Mondop has ornate doors and columns. It is referred to as “the library” because it contains old texts of the Tripitaka – one of the earliest canons of the Buddha’s teachings translated from the Pali language. As one passes through this densely packed area, Wat Phra Keo suddenly appears. It is a standalone building and is the clear focal point of the complex. For most Thais, it is the most important and beautiful temple in Thailand. The outside of the building is meticulously bejeweled and glittering. Each side of the temple has its own “gate” of entry that is designated by a special statue or other unique element.

The Laughing Hermit - outside Wat Phra Keow

The Laughing Hermit

On the Western side of the temple, I was startled to see what looked like some jester or clown statue. This bronze statue was almost black in color and was unlike any other statue I had seen in any Buddhist temple grounds before. I was at the entry point of Wat Phra Keo called the “hermit gate” and this strange figure before me was the “laughing hermit” — a Thai saint believed to have healing powers.  I saw a few people stop by this image in order to make offerings in the form of flowers, fruit, and candles.  From here, I walked up a some steps and I entered Wat Phra Keo. Since it was early July, the King had just changed the Emerald Buddha’s garments to reflect the start of the start of the rainy season, so a gold sash covered the statue’s torso.

The ethereal glow of the Emerald Buddha

The ethereal glow of the Emerald Buddha

The Emerald Buddha is illuminated ever so slightly in an otherwise dark room. The effect is that the image appears to float.  Although the image looks like other seated images of the Buddha, many Thai believe the Emerald Buddha is  endowed with special powers such as the ability to perform miracles.  For the first century or so after it was housed in Wat Phra Keo, the Emerald Buddha was actually held aloft and walked by monks through the streets of Bangkok after the outbreaks of diseases, natural disasters, or other bad fortune had hit the people.  The effect of this magical looking green Buddha being carried through Bangkok neighborhoods cannot be overstated. People were cured of ailments and sickness, the waters of the Chao Phraya River quickly receded after large storms had brought floods and destroyed crops, and there was a reinforcement of the harmony between the Chakri King, the Sangha, and the citizenry.

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The Emerald Buddha (2016)

The most practical importance of the Emerald Buddha is its connection with the Chakri dynasty — which is nearly 250 years old and is the longest reign of any dynasty in Thailand’s history. This dynasty began with Chao Phra Chakri’s capture of the Emerald Buddha from Vientiane — although he did not become King Rama I until a year later. He built Wat Phra Keo and used the Emerald Buddha as a religio-political tool in order to sanction his rule and that of his heirs.  Even though King Rama IX is a “king only in title” today, he is highly esteemed by the people– almost on par as a religious leader. He is beseeched by his subjects to intervene from time to time in the many deadlocks, coups, and corruption that have plagued the Thai government through the years. He appears to have scaled back such interventions as of late, but it is highly doubtful that he will ever abdicate or give up his role as the primary caretaker of the Emerald Buddha. One of the most widely held beliefs in Thailand is that on the day the Emerald Buddha is taken out of Bangkok, the Chakri dynasty will end. Given the roving nature of the Emerald Buddha over the last millennia, I can’t help but think that there may not be a King Rama X.

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